Live and Let Die: The Yaru and Tabira in Okinawa


“Long after the bomb falls and you and your good deeds are gone, cockroaches will still be here, prowling the streets like armored cars.” ~Tama Janowitz

No.  No, there is no "cute" roach.  EVER.

No. No, there is no “cute” roach. EVER.

Live and let live. One of the many messages the holiday should convey. Both which always remind me of a most welcomed houseguest we hosted back on Okinawa in 1999.

She ended up staying for the next 20 months. She didn’t take up a lot of room, was seldom if ever seen, and didn’t cost us a dime to keep around. I’m not even sure “it” was a female; I respected her privacy too much to really check, and my guess is based only on “her” reclusive Goth-like teenager behavior….

Who we welcomed into our home back then was the more beneficial of two perennial icons and adversaries of Okinawa. Sorry to disappoint, but I’m not talking about the mongoose-snake pairing famous in the Ryukyus. What I’m talking about is the yaru. And she became our home’s guardian from the rather disgusting creature in the pairing, the tabira. Unfortunately she couldn’t protect me from the Land of Misfit Toys I found myself shipwrecked upon….

I bet Ace feels the same way about roaches.  I mean with their fangs and all….

rodanus1tAG_46603The tabira is a much nicer-sounding name for something most of us detest – the large almost indestructible cockroach that seems so ubiquitous at tropical and sub-tropical latitudes all across the globe. I grew up sharing South Florida with these creatures, some approaching the size of Rodan, and who can fly every bit as well. Hell, Godzilla would even have issues warring with these underworld sleuths. Urban legend within my own family states that one can never, ever make eye-contact with a roach: they sense fear and will leverage that advantage by flying directly into your face! Personally, as a hardened veteran of decades of war with these invaders, I conclude that there is not much that can be done to defeat and declare victory over such a robust warrior. Only a pyrrhic win is in the realm of possibility.

Our savior, guardian and protector!

Our savior, guardian and protector!

Humans have a hard time with roaches.

Humans have a hard time with roaches.

Far more agreeable of this classic pairing is the yaru, Japanese for what we in the west are familiar with as the gecko (“wall lizard”). Like most Japanese characters, it’s an idea more than just a simple word, which best translates as “protector” or “guardian of the home.” This moniker is easily sourced to this particular lizard’s inherent ability to do what we humans can’t: organically control and even defeat roach infestations at every turn.

Our 5 bedroom, two story home back in 1999.  A veritable roach-ryokan if you will....

Our 5 bedroom, two-story home back in 1999. A veritable roach-ryokan if you will….

Our immediate neighborhood.

Our immediate neighborhood.

Back in 1999 we lived in a very large house, which actually had a yard complete with brushes and shrubs. The surrounding neighborhoods were dotted with sugarcane fields, they themselves riddled with roaches. Which, sooner or later, found their way into our home. Contractual pest control is not something the Okinawans do, and as Americans we are largely left to defend ourselves out on the local economy. While our cat Tora did kill and finally eat a roach or two, it was only when she found one, and then only after about 68 minutes of torturous play. That is if the insect didn’t escape during a lapse in the cat’s attention…. For an interesting tale of how we named our Okinawan-adopted cat, see Tora Tora Tora!

Our Cat Tora, while a killer of shrews, thought roaches to playthings.

Our Cat Tora, while a killer of shrews, thought roaches to playthings.

Okinawa is hot, humid, and often wet, and still in many places covered with dense foliage that you might expect from a subtropical island located in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Still being quite rural in places and without extensive use of pesticides or other more formalized pest control measures, there is a high probably of personal interaction with all sorts of creatures, great and small. The gecko foremost among them.

Moving into our office/computer room.  Our four-legged assassin live in the far corner above the room's AC....

Moving into our office/computer room. Our four-legged assassin live in the far corner above the room’s AC….

So one night came the call from the direction and vicinity of our computer room office. That distinctive chirp that announces a gecko’s presence. At first we didn’t know what it was, and unless one is used to sharing their abode with a reptile or two, it can be quite disconcerting. I tracked our guest’s presence down to one corner of the office, but since her call was so random and short-lived, nailing down the location of her home became an entertaining game of sorts. The kids and I would run to the office door and screech to a stop, me motioning for them to stay quiet and enter the room with stealth in order not to spook our little friend. And then we would tip-toe into the room, looking here and there, motioning to each other in precise coordination using military-like signals.

Which would you rather have:  the lizard or that other really creepy thing!

Which would you rather have: the lizard or that other really creepy thing!

This four-legged friend is unique in appearance with almost transparent skin, and usually announces its presence not visually, but using its very distinctive call, a song usually heard in the evenings, intermittently throughout the night. And what many Americans might consider an uninvited guest, the Japanese welcome into their homes. Okinawans – a very superstitious people – believe that Gecko brings good fortune when found in their homes, so geckos here are not killed or removed from the home, but are left in residence, both as living good luck charms and the guards against insects which they are. From a pragmatic standpoint, this creature – cute to some – really does protect the home from a whole plethora of undesirables, devouring life forms like mosquitos, flies and cockroaches.

I prefer to think of Okinawan Yaru more like this....

I prefer to think of Okinawan Yaru more like this….

Unfortunately, like most other aspects of life, there is no free lunch. Well, there is for the gecko, but of course there is a price to pay. All living things excrete, and the yaru is no exception. Thus, small amounts of processed bug may be found around the home, looking like those chocolate sprinkles so popular on cupcakes. These we found often, mostly located below the room’s AC unit, on window sills, and in corners of other rooms in our home. I made this too a detective game to play with the kids, using these finds to track our vigilante’s movements through the home.

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Our gecko’s home was never officially located, or at least I made sure “we” never found her. While I knew exactly where she was living – atop and/or in our room’s air conditioner unit, I wanted the mystery to remain for the kids. I had no intention of ruining our good thing; since the gecko’s arrival, our roach problem had…ceased to exist. But this also highlights a related source of well-known trouble in Okinawa regarding the yaru: air conditioners. In fact, one of the leading causes of AC trouble here is this little innocuous lizard. Air conditioners are nice and warm inside, and offer an inviting place for the lady yarus to nest and start a family (lay eggs). Problem is that often times this results in an electrical short, resulting in not just costly repairs, but the untimely demise of a valued protector. To counter, it’s very easy to find a special attachment for ACs called “Gecko guards” in the home-improvement stores here on Okinawa. In an ironic twist sometimes we have to guard against the guard.

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Revell%20H450%20GekkoThe nocturnal hunter-killer aspects of the gecko are often confused with a similarly named Japanese aircraft from WWII: The Nakajima J1N1 Gekko (or Gekkou). Developed to meet the Japanese navy’s requirements for a long-range escort fighter, the J1N1 instead entered service as a reconnaissance platform instead. The need to counter the largely unopposed American night bombing raids of 1943 in the Southwest Pacific led to its conversion into a night fighter, a role served so well by the carbon-based version. Starting In May 1943, the J1N1-S meet with success by downing two B-17 Flying Fortresses, and was quickly nicknamed the “Gekko” (or “Gekkou“), meaning “moonlight” or “moonbeam.” Like most other elements of Japanese aviation in 1945, Gekkos were further modified as kamikaze suicide platforms, something its reptile namesake would never consider.

Live and let live after all.

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I mean, except for those terrible tabira….

Japan, You’re Doing it Wrong! (Sometimes)


 

Japan, you're doing this wrong!

Japan, you’re doing this wrong!

It’s not a shock to anyone following Far East Fling that Jody and I are huge fans of the Japanese and Okinawans, their culture, and their country.  I recently did a blog on our “Top 10 Things Done Right” in Japan, but of course, being in Asia, every yin has its yang, or vice versa.  In other words, there are things done wrong in the Far East, sometimes dreadfully so!  Thus, what follows is our (short) listing of the “Top 10 Vexes” that irks us here to no end.  While you may not agree, and it may counter to flirting with the Far East, I hope that at least you find the humor in the views of a couple of misplaced gaijin Westerners.

Colonel, you're doing it wrong in Japan.

Colonel, they’re doing it wrong in Japan.

10. KFC. That’s right, Kentucky Fried Chicken.  The KFCs in Okinawa are certainly not in Kansas anymore, and neither can one find a hint of Kentucky in Okinawa.  The chickens are smallish Asian birds, and the original recipe is served quite slimy (all personal opinion, of course).  The sodas are quite size-challenged, looking more like a kiddie drink in the states, and this strong American male needs more than a shot (or two) of Coke, diet or not.  But the worst offense, by far, one which the Colonel standing outside every KFC in Japan cannot overcome with his food aficionado’s charm, is the biscuit served here.  They are at once dense, lacking both butter- and buttermilk flavors, and presented with a hole in the center.  People, it’s more like a donut that a buttermilk biscuit!  And it should be considered a culinary crime.

I believe this is wrong.  On many levels.

I believe this is wrong. On many levels.

9. Christmas. Now that Halloween is about to come and go, Japan is already switching to Christmas.  Shop-fronts are being decorated with most-things Santa, trees are popping up in hotel lobbies, and you’ll find a plastic Colonel Sanders dressed in a Santa outfit outside many branches of KFC throughout Okinawa (still can’t make up for the dang biscuit tragedy).  But, like most places, the hype can’t hold up to actually delivering the Christmas spirit.  It’s no secret that Japan isn’t based on Christianity, and it shouldn’t come as a shock to hear that Christmas Day is just another working day for the Japanese.  In fact, Christmas in Japan is really for lovers (see my blog Christmas is for Lovers).  And, given that paradigm shift, December 24th in Japan is perhaps considered the biggest day for romance of the year.  But very shortly afterwards, the Japanese swiftly move on to more fitting and appropriate Asian-inspired holidays, like celebrating the Chinese lunar new year….  Of course there is the fixation in Japan on “Christmas Dinner,” which in the last 40 years has become completely synonymous with KFC (do you sense a common denominator so far??).  So instead of the biggest, baddest, bestest roast beast of the year, the Japanese turn to a family-sized bucket of the Colonel’s finger-lickin’-good chicken to season the season.  And they are dead serious about it here; orders usually are placed sometime in November, and KFCs publish a pickup schedule as timely and precise as they are known for the running of their mass transit trains.

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8. Red Lights and No Left (our right) Turns. There is no left on red here, the equivalent of no right turn on red in America.  Now sure, there are places where this may hold true at home in the states, but by-in-large, we endeavor to keep traffic moving along by allowing such turns…albeit after a full stop and checking for others who may have right-of-way.  In Japan, pedestrians hold sanctity over timeliness (which is itself next to godliness, or so we’re all told); here, people on foot or bike actually matter more than how late you may be to grabbing your overpriced Starbucks caramel mocha frappuccino.  Likewise, many neighborhood intersections stop traffic in all directions to allow pedestrians to cross (read more in my blog Red Lights Running).  These two facets of Japanese traffic de-engineering – no turns on red and stopping all traffic – are bad enough alone or together, but when you realize that none of the lights are timed with any others, and every red light here works on a simple timer vice being traffic-triggered, grid lock assumes a new and potentially frustrating definition.  If the Japanese drivers and people weren’t so dang polite, it would surely lead to road rage…but her there is NONE.  Another amazing benefit:  it allows small children in Japan, like 5 or 6 years old, to walk to school alone, where they simply raise their hand when approaching an intersection as a signal that they intend to cross the road and you best stop and yield (which most do).

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7. Renting and Moving. Moving is expensive, relatively speaking, no matter where one resides.  With plots the size of most American backyards costing obscene amounts of money in Japan, it’s really no wonder that rents here are so high.  But renting an apartment involves far more expenditure than the same action generally requires back home in the States.  It takes handfuls of cash here to get handed a key!  When renting a domicile in Japan, generally speaking, you need a purse bloated enough to cover:  1) First month’s rent up-front, which seems to be an international standard of sorts.  2) “Shikikin,” or the Far East version of a security deposit, where like most places, it is mostly refundable but equal to one or two month’s rent.  3) “Reikin,” or a gratuity, where the capitalistic-lite money-trail in Japan takes its first dramatic and uncapitalistic twist.  Written in kanji as 礼 “thanks” and 金 “money”, reikin of up to two month’s rent is paid to some greedy landlords in order to secure an apartment.  4) Housing agency fees, which accounts for yet another month’s rent.  And finally, 5) Price Gouging.  This last one I’m perfectly okay with, being married to an Active Duty member of the US armed forces.  The Okinawans know all too well what the maximum housing allowances are for the American military, based on rank and dependent status, and often times will price a unit targeted at Americans at the very upper allowance limit, which is often times 33-50% more than would be charged for a local.  Since military members don’t get more than they actually pay in rent, no one loses.  In fact, I’m all for the local economy benefiting from having such a large and strong American presence on their tiny island.  For me and Jody, renting our Quirky Condo (see the blog Our Home, Kwuirky with a K!), priced at ~$2750/month, cost us out-of-pocket something on the order of $7,000 in cash.  And this is low considering that most property owners and housing agencies on Okinawa have come to realize (after probably being forced by the US government) that compulsory gratuities are incredibly old-fashioned and illegal in the American framework, and thus they ask only for partially refundable security deposits.  Add in the expensing, in cash, of buying, registering, and insuring two vehicles, and that total jumps to $15,000!  Yikes.

Japan isn't the only ones doing bureaucracy wrong.

Japan isn’t the only ones doing bureaucracy wrong.

6. Bureaucracy. Some rather silly traditions and rules past their primes result in a rigid bureaucracy in Japan, which they get incredibly “right.”  It makes this “wrong” listing since some elements of the Japanese society can be frustratingly backwards.  The Japanese positively excel at making inane processes even more laborious and painful; rules in Japan were and are never made or intended to be broken.  Ever.  Case in point:  we went to board an airport terminal bus, and were the only two getting on.  However, we were motioned off the bus and down along the curb about 40’, where, after the bus pulled forward, we were then allowed to board….  All Jody and I could do was smile at each other.  Japanese bureaucracy, however, is also largely responsible for many of the reasons why Jody and I enjoy living in a country where everything runs so smoothly, from on-time, every time mass transit, to first-class customer service wherever you go, to on-time almost-to-the-minute service calls and deliveries, all with zero fuss and all smiles.  These things are only possible through a comprehensive web of rules and standards.  In fact, I’ve been told that either in government service or civilian working life, the Japanese are often wary of those who try to effect change and bend rules as they run counter to the whims and greater good of everyone else.  A favorite line I like to quote:  “While the West invented bureaucracy, the Japanese perfected it!”

Wow.  You get the point.

Wow. You get the point.

5. Packaging. We’re not talking about handsome traditional Japanese packaging or beautiful Asian gift-wrapping here, both of which are unassumingly stunning and widely utilized.  What I’m talking about here is Japan’s craze with sealing most anything and perhaps almost everything in plastic.  Japan as a country is way ahead of America in terms of recycling and consumer participation in the direct management of waste streams, but from every appearance, there is a use of plastic more massive than anything in the West that I’m familiar with.  Now, who doesn’t like crisp, fresh and delicious crackers?  But not each individual one needs to be hermetically sealed.  Seriously, Japan, you are killing us and your small corner of the planet with plastic.  Give it a rest!

Television done so very wrong.

Television done so very wrong.

4. Television. Japan offers a wide array of quality anime and raw manga, and of course there are the cheesy dramas that the Japanese love with a passion, but much of the programming here (especially in Okinawa) is just crudely bad.  Silly low-budget chat shows, slapstick comedies, and the craziest game shows on the planet all make the menu of mediocre.  Now if variety shows tickle your fancy – ones with large panels of the same B-list celebrities week after week, each with carefully crafted lines and jokes and female audience members exclaiming “EEEEE-eee!” in amazement and disbelief, all presented in a format that looks like it was produced by a bunch of high-school vocational broadcasting students – then you’re in for a real treat in Japan.  Jody and I, however, switch on our televisions to Japanese programming only when we’ve run out of cute cat videos to watch online.

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3. Money and ATMs. Producing some of the world’s best technological gadgets, one would think that the Japanese would be paying for their commercialism by embedded RF chips in their forearms or via retinal scanning, let alone swiping a piece of plastic like most of the rest of the First World does.  While businesses are getting better and better about accepting credit cards, Okinawa (and wider Japan to a lesser extent) is still very much a cash-based society that necessitates have at least ten or twenty thousand yen in your wallet at any given time.  Especially on the weekends.  “Why,” I hear you asking?  Because the majority of ATMs (and their hosting banks) close completely – literally via an automated metal shutter – in the evening and on weekends.  Or if they remain open, extra fees for cash withdraws when most people want cash the most are charged.  Many local bars and Mom & Pop businesses remain strictly cash only, debit cards use remains rare.  Hey Japan, if you want your well-paid citizenry to roil up the economy, you’ve got to allow access to money!  Lucky for Jody and I, the ATMs on base are all run by the 24/7 American banking industry, and Bank of America ATMs discharge both dollars and Yen without any surcharges.  We still carry around gobs of cash, both in dollars and yen.

But people don't take garbage with them....

But people don’t take garbage with them….

2. Public Trash Cans. One of the most annoying facets of living in Okinawa is the island’s apparent abhorrence with public trash cans.  I can just imagine the bureaucratic logic:  “Hey Mayumi, if we put out public trash cans, not only do we have to buy them first, we have to pay for pickup!”  “Osamu, you’re absolutely right:  no public trash cans is the absolute and only solution!”  So, we live along an absolutely beautiful and popular seawall fronting the East China Sea, only to have it marred by constant litter everywhere.  No, the public doesn’t take their refuse away, nor does the community chip in to help.  Litter is ubiquitous, exactly because there is nowhere to put it.  If only Japan had their version of a proud, shirtless Indian crying along the seashore, things would be different.  Shame on you Japan, for being both obtuse litterbugs AND not providing a means for public refuse collection.

The dangers of low insulation and high humidity!

The dangers of low insulation and high humidity!

1. Heating, Cooling & (the lack of) Insulation. Like the Geiko commercials go, everyone knows that…houses in Japan are thin and poorly insulated because they’re designed to be as light as possible in order to better withstand earthquakes.  But that doesn’t have to mean they are either insanely hot during an Okinawan summer, or miserably cold in the northern reaches of Honshu in winter.  A lack of central air conditioning means each room has its own power-hungry wall-mounted air conditioner, a rather inefficient way to cool or heat a dwelling.  Add in what seems to be almost a national allergy to any material or design with even a hint of insulating properties, what results is an Island populace that is, in effect, cooling (or heating) the surrounding environment in their expensive efforts to make the indoors inhabitable!  Read Timeless Townhouse for more on historical Japanese home design.  In fact, What happens is that the external environment actually finds it way inside; see Tropical Troubles for one unfortunate result.  One day Japan will come to the collective realization that science has, indeed, already produced ultra-light, super-insulating and affordable materials that can be effectively integrated into Japan’s domestic domiciles.

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In the grand scheme of life in our Far East Fling, these pet peeves matter little. Life is Good in and throughout Japan!  But like anywhere else in the world, life in this island-nation of Asia has its pros and cons.  What do YOU who have traveled or lived here find most annoying about being a stranger in this strange land?

Biker Life in Japan: Big Similarity, Small Difference 大同小異 (daidō shōi)


The Anime Version of Me and Jody as Bikers in Japan

The Anime Version of Me and Jody as Bikers in Japan.  At least my eye color is close….

“And I to my Motorcycle, Parked like the Soul of the Junkyard Restored, a bicycle Fleshed with Power, and tore off up Highway 106, continually Drunk on the Wind in my mouth, Wringing the handlebar for Speed, Wild to be Wreckage Forever” ~James Dickey

“Life should not be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside, in a cloud of smoke, thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and loudly proclaiming, ‘Wow! What a Ride!’”  ~Hunter S. Thompson

Me on my Honda Steed in Okinawa, 2005

Me on my Honda Steed in Okinawa, 2005

“Four wheels move the body. Two wheels move the soul.” ~Unknown

bikeI am a biker.  Well, let me correct that:  I own a large American cruiser, and I love to ride.  I am, however, part of the more modern movement of bikers and biking, unlike that of Easy Rider or Sons of Anarchy:  Older, mostly law-abiding, white-collar professional, and with the disposable income it takes to live the life, comfortably.  And at first glance things seem, as usual, weirdly dissimilar, In Japan, it is really…Big Similarity, Small Difference 大同小異 (daidō shōi).

Japanese Bosozoku:  No Hell's Angels!

Japanese Bosozoku: No Hell’s Angels, and the only anarchy is in the hairstyles!

Bōsōzoku (暴走族, “reckless tribe”) is a Japanese youth subculture associated with illegally customized motorcycles, in which mufflers are removed in order to make as much noise as possible.  Bōsōzoku also engage in dangerous or reckless driving, such as weaving in traffic, not wearing motorcycle helmets, speeding through congested city streets, and running red lights.  Hardly gang-like behavior by American standards.  But keep in mind that driving in Japan is taken much more seriously, as is breaking the law while driving.  When bōsōzoku go on group rides, led by a ride captain like we bikers do in the US, the Japanese police often dispatch a police vehicle to trail the group and help prevent any possible incidents.

“I’d rather be riding my motorcycle thinking about God than sitting in church thinking about my motorcycle” ~Unknown

My Ride...back home...in storage...for 3 long years....

My Ride…back home…in storage…for 3 long years….

My biker-life started in Okinawa back in 2005.  After separating from my then wife (now ex-wife), I found myself abandoning many of the restraints that had rather artificially held me back from doing many of the things I had always envisioned myself doing.  How many of us get caught up in kids, our jobs, and the roles to fulfill and the molds to fill that others and society set for and expect of us?  Most.  A radical shift in mindset – like that of an imminent divorce – sometimes is what it takes to redirect one’s life to a more true and…dare I say “interesting” path, one at least where preconceived notions and attitudes can be rejected.

Grease 2, Who's That Guy?  He's Bōsōzoku!!!

Grease 2, Who’s That Guy? He’s Bōsōzoku!!!

In Japan, bōsōzoku members have been traditionally almost always under the legal age of 20, and their anti-establishment attitudes and lack of respect for authority set them apart from the normal straight-laced teenager in Japan.  Many dedicated and hardcore members have often moved on to become low ranking members of the truly organized crime gang/syndicate in japan, the yakuza.  Now those guys constitute a gang, by any standard.

Uncle-Sam-Biker-Large

I didn’t get my first bike until I was 39, well over the legal age, when I too found myself full of anti-establishment attitudes and lack of respect for authority, which most certainly set me apart from most card-carrying, gun-toting, conservative Christian Republican Officers that made up the majority of the US military’s officer corps.  While I learned to ride dirt bikes at a very young age – without even wearing shoes or a shirt, let alone a helmet – and continued to enjoy 3-wheeling long after they were no longer made (‘cause, you know, they are too dangerous, which also means they are a BLAST!), I kept the urge to bike at bay for my entire married life….

My Bestest Biker-Bud and Mentor:  "T"

My Bestest Biker-Bud and Mentor: “T”

The first bōsōzoku started popping up in Japan in the 1950s when Japan’s automobile industry started to explode and blue-collar work and jobs became very regimented. These early hooligans were known as kaminari zoku or “thunder tribe,” and were molded on British counterculture rockers of the time.  Most came from lower class families and joined up for many of the same reasons people in all countries join gangs:  dissatisfaction with the system, government, or just their place in society (socio-economic status).  Just like anywhere else, people joined to feel like they were part of something bigger while at the same time sticking it to the man.  Hell, I feel that way most days, given the state of America’s “authorities.”

“Most motorcycle problems are caused by the nut that connects the handlebars to the saddle.” ~Unknown

My FIRST Bike, which I never rode....

My FIRST Bike, which I never rode….

That first thunder bike of mine was a brand new Harley Davidson Sporter 883, purchased through military sales on Okinawa in the summer of 2005.  However, I quickly found out why I was so anti-establishment and had a problem with the lame military authority on the island:  in the Navy, during your first year of riding in Japan, you are limited to a 400cc-sized engine, and you couldn’t take passengers.  WTF?  Sure, the military will put you in harm’s way on purpose, but oh no, they don’t trust you a bike for a split-second.  The bike purchase was refunded before I ever took ownership, but lucky for me, I found a perfect substitute that would pass the size muster:  a Honda 400cc Steed, a miniature cruiser, liquid-cooled, and fast as lighting!  I can neither confirm nor deny whether I took passengers on my motorcycle in Okinawa, but let’s just say it made for a GREAT date machine (wink)!

My Modern Mainstream Biker Buds Back Home

My Modern Mainstream Biker Buds Back Home. You can’t be scary wearing a scarf….

"666" - As Evil as my Rides Get

“666” – As Evil as my Rides Get

In the 1980s and 1990s, bōsōzoku would often embark on massed rides, in which hundreds of bikers would cruise together slowly en masse down an expressway or through the suburbs.  The motorcyclists would run toll booths and ignore police attempts to detain them, blocking traffic and waving imperial Japanese flags (once outlawed in Japan) while creating an unbelievable uproar with their illegally modified mufflers.  The bikers would sometimes smash the cars and terrorize or assault any motorists or bystanders (especially gaijin) who got in the way or expressed disapproval with the bikers’ behavior.  Basically, like thugs and hooligans everywhere, these gangs were an annoying pain in Japan’s collective ass.

“People are more violently opposed to fur than leather because it’s safer to harass rich women than motorcycle gangs” ~Unknown

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In Okinawa, in 1999, I remember hearing these biker “gangs” roaming the city streets, it seemed, between about midnight and 4 am.  Seriously, it’s like what’s written above:  they were really not tearing around or speeding all that much.  Rather, they were more interested in revving their engines while in neutral, moving slowly through the streets, but making a terrific racket.  I was told, at the time (and I cannot confirm this from any other source), that the bikers (and car gangs as well, which are very similar in all aspects) had informal agreements with the police that they (the gangs) wouldn’t be harassed if they did their riding late at night when traffic was minimal and the roads basically clear.  Obviously the police don’t live anywhere close to the roads frequented by these hoodlums, or those times would be changed!

That is certainly NOT an American Biker's ride.... He's not even color-coordinated!

That is certainly NOT an American Biker’s ride…. He’s not even color-coordinated!

Bōsōzoku historically have modified their bikes in peculiar and often showy ways; while they start as an average Japanese road bike, they quickly are transformed into something that appears to combine elements of an American chopper and a British cafe racer.  Loud paint jobs on the fenders and gas tanks with motifs such as flames or kamikaze style “rising sun” designs are commonplace.  The bikes will often be adorned with stickers and/or flags depicting the gang’s symbol or logo.

“No matter what marque you ride, it’s all the same wind.” ~Unknown

Look closely and you'll see my (sexy) guardian angel.

Look closely and you’ll see my (sexy) guardian angel.

176450172_930bc6730e_b176448878_a7aeffabde_bMe – my bike in Okinawa was adorned with bumper-stickers, namely Bettie Page pinups!  Yes, that’s right; I have always had a thing for the 40s, and felt that I was born in the wrong time and era.  From the fashion of the time, the defined roles in society, to the men’s men that served in WWII, I am drawn to that time.  And to the era’s pinups….  Okay, yeah, so Bettie is from the 50s, but you get my point!  And besides, Bettie was very anti-establishment for her time, and the fetish aspect of her demeanor fit mine oh so well.  I came to think of her as my own protective “angel,” except one dressed in black.  Wearing fishnets.  And carrying a whip.

BosoZoku-01

02WWII_Japanese_Kamikaze_Pilot_by_yehXiminThe stereotypical bōsōzoku are instantly recognizable, adorned with a jumpsuit like those worn by manual laborers or a tokkō-fuku (特攻服, “special attack uniform,” a reference to the uniform worn by Japanese Kamikaze pilots of WWII), a type of military issued overcoat with kanji slogans and rising-sun patches.  The tokkō-fuku is usually worn open with no shirt underneath, and baggy matching pants are tucked inside tall boots.  A tasuki is also usually worn as a sash tied in an “X” crossing the torso, again in emulation of Japanese World War II fighter pilots.  Leather jackets – the international symbol of bikerhood-dom, often embroidered with club/gang logos are commonplace.  Finally, the signature elements of the gangs include long hachimaki headbands complete with battle slogans (more reference to WWII), and most impressively and rather ridiculously, pompadour hairstyles, a mutation of what we would relate to as a greaser/rocker look.

I guess helmets are clearly out of the question....

I guess helmets are clearly out of the question….

“A zest for living must include a willingness to die.” ~R.A. Heinlein

A good biker-bud of mine in full leathers.  Where's the Rising Sun, Jim??

A good biker-bud of mine in full leathers with 37 pieces of flair. Where’s the Rising Sun headband, Jim??

7167144030_7358e0745a_bI got my first leather riding vest while on Okinawa, and it is still my only one.  I swore I would never own chaps, but my first winter riding changed my mind in about 1.3 seconds at 60mph in 40 degree weather.  No, I don’t adorn myself with symbols, slogans, or gratuitous graffiti of most any sort.  I covered the back of my leather vest with the largest American flag I could find; years later, the front was minimally adorned with my retired Navy status, along with a succinct history of my service.

The drink:  very unbiker-like....

The Big-Gulp: very unbiker-like….

bos_1In Japan in the last decade, membership of the bōsōzoku has fallen from an all-time high of 42k+ in 1982 to an all-time low of barely 9k members across 500 gangs nationwide in 2011.  This is certainly due in part to new laws giving police more power to arrest groups of reckless bikers which have resulted in many more prosecutions.  It seems that the distractions of the modern world have also taken their toll on gang interest.  In a virtual alternative, which avoids the necessity of risk, arrest, and a large outlay of cash – and those silly hairstyles – modern Japanese youth seem more likely to vent their angst in aggressive and violent games like Grand Theft Auto and Yakuza.  Thus, being just the basic thugs they are, and finding themselves under new threat and distraction, the bōsōzoku started becoming less brazen in their ways, which has resulted in much less of the aura of being an anti-establishment gang cool enough to which to belong.  Many now even drive what would be considered large scooters, and ride in much smaller groups.  They even now dress much more main-stream.  And wear helmets.  And are older…and more professional.  Sound familiar??  Sometimes the only way to tell bōsōzoku today is that you can hear their bikes long before you can see the “gang.”  Such a modern morph on rebellion is a far cry from the gangs’ origins.  Whatever the reasons, thankfully, being less interesting to young counter-culture thugs, the gangs have become equally less annoying…and the streets have become much quieter.

“Young riders pick a destination and go….  Old riders pick a direction and go.” ~Unknown

Modern Bosozoku:  older, wiser, more mainstream, but not much quieter!

Modern Bosozoku: older, wiser, more mainstream, much less hair care product, but not much quieter!

The streets here ARE quieter, but there are still those bikers who ride throughout the night, revving their engines over and over, but going nowhere fast.  Although an American bike might say that it’s the journey that counts over the destination, in Japan it’s all about the cacophony of the journey!  It doesn’t bother me much; they do not frequent our neighborhood, and can only be heard in the distance.  Actually, I smile when I hear them, as I remain bike-less here on Okinawa – for now – and miss my Steed from back in the day, where I too could ride, with my knees in the breeze, my machine tuned for torque, a mere twist of my wrist providing that sense of freedom and independence that comes from riding cageless….

“A motorcycle is an independent thing.” ~Ryan Hurst

The only kind of riding Jody and are I enjoying of late....

The only kind of riding Jody and are I enjoying of late….

Like biker gangs in the United States, which too have suffered a downturn and decline much like that experienced in Japan, the biker-life here has gone much more mainstream.  Which leads one to potentially ponder:  what do you think about this dying subculture?  Will bōsōzoku ever completely die out?  If so, should their corner of Japanese culture be preserved?  And have they served an interesting and important enough part of Japan’s society to one day gain a popular resurgence (think Easy Rider and Sons of Anarchy in terms of popularity in the United States)?  Or, are they a mere nuisance that deserves to be smothered once and for all?

“Never trade the thrills of living for the security of existence.” ~Unknown

Bike Quotes

Whatever happens to biker gangs ‘round the world, life is too short not to ride.  Sometimes, when one looks down a long, straight road, or when one crests that high hilltop which allows spying the twisting asphalt disappearing into the horizon’s haze, the road – like life – seems to never end.  But you better believe both do.  Do what you really want to do.  And do it today.

Whatever that happens to be for you, to me, it’s better in the wind.

It's Better in the Wind

It’s Better in the Wind

Shipwrecked on the Island of Misfit Toys: 1999-2001


TACRON Det Photo

TACRON Det Photo

I didn’t want to ever be stationed in Japan.  I had absolutely no interest…back in the 1990s.  Now, it wasn’t anything personal or racist; I never felt comfortable enough about taking my family – wife and small children – to such a foreign place to live, work and go to school, all the while I was on-tap to deploy at any moment.  And those moments were sure to happen.  Often.

That all changed, however, in 1999.  I’ve written about how this all came about here at length (see Tora Tora Tora), but let me summarize it a bit here.

At the time I got orders to Japan I was what the Navy labels one as “Not Physically Qualified” (NPQ) for flight, suffering from chronic and debilitating back pain and serious sciatica resulting from a severe back injury in high school, exacerbated by years of weight lifting.  Due to this status, I was not slated for a Department Head squadron tour (a career-killer for aviators), and thus I became for Naval Aviation the proverbial round peg that can fit most any square hole.  Are there are always a lot of squares that no one wants anything to do with?

So, after 9 months of living overseas in Italy where they “stashed” me on short-notice after a reservist backed out of NATO-based orders (best thing to ever happen to me in the Navy…next to Okinawa), I came home to reassignment to, like I’ve stated, somewhere I never had any intention of living:  Japan.  It was a one-two-three combo knockout blow.

Or so I thought at the time.

My recollections of the phone call with my Navy “Detailer” who broke the news to me….

“Introducing first…. from the blue corner, weighing a round 29 billion pounds, hailing from Washington DC and rated as the best, most capable sea-service in the whole-wide-world and star of the hit movie Top Gun, with 33 gazillion kills, and only two losses, it is the ass-kicker of the Brits, the Italians, the Germans and the Japanese, and subduer of Somalia pirates and innumerable small, defenseless Caribbean nations, abled-bodied and full of seaman, I INTRODUCE…The…

(dramatic pause)

UNITED…

(more dramatic pause)

STTTTTTTTTTAAAAAAAATTTTTTTEEEEEESSSSSSS…

(most dramatic pause)

NAVY!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!”

“And, in the red corner, weighing in at a few ounces over 192 pounds, hailing from Pensacola, Florida, rated by many as the best pound for aviator in recent years, with 3 wins, 1 of them coming by the way of knockout (TKO), and no defeats (but only 3 boxing matches during Aviation Preflight Training), he is the former middleweight Navy career champion, former super middle weight A-6 Bombardier-Navigator, and, former light heavy-lightweight weight champion, and former HEAVYWEIGHT CHAMPION OF HIS FAMILY… Lieutenant Commander…

KEVIN…

(dramatic pause)

ELLLLLLLLLLLLLLLL-VIIIIIIISSSSSSSSSS….

(most dramatic pause!)

KING!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

“Ding-Ding!” resounds the boxing bell.  Fight’s on.  I have a feeling it’s not going to be fair.

The Navy comes out aggressively swinging, not wasting any time with niceties or compassion.  First, it’s a combo followed by a stiff right jab to the nose:  “You’re getting orders to Japan.”  I’m dizzy and  stumble back a step, somewhat dazed by the sharp pain of the blunt words.

Before I could regain any composure, the second combination, a crossing blow from the left to the check, strikes:  “It’s a non-flying job.”  Confusion starts to reign as the throbbing realization of no longer being able to fly sets in.  Let me put it to you this way:  I didn’t join the Navy for its ships….

And the coup de gras, combo #3, a right hook square on the chin:  “…and you’ll be assigned to a ship….”  Tunnel vision sets in and stars start to orbit my psyche as I think about being “stuck” on a boat for months and years at a time….

Down to the mat I go, unreactive and stiff as a board, bouncing lightly upon being grounded.  But as quickly as the Navy dropped me with this TKO, his gloves were found to be over-weighted with a healthy dose of misinformation.  The fight was called; I told you it wasn’t going to be fair.

It seldom is with Big Navy.

Me in East Timor, fall of 1999.

Me in East Timor, fall of 1999.

It wasn’t Japan, but Okinawa to which I was being assigned.  And there is a serious difference between the two.  It’s like trying to call Hawaiian or Puerto Rican culture as the same as “American.”  Okinawa happens to be surrounded by some of the most beautiful reefs in the world, all just an easy shore-dive away.  Besides skydiving (and verifying my wife’s naked age of 24), scuba diving IS my passion.

While it was a non-flying job, I was able to maintain flying status the whole time, which meant I didn’t have to give up my special “Flight Pay,” which at the time made up a significant portion of my pay.  Discretionary income became very important for scuba diving, as well as enabling the use of the centrally-located island in the Pacific as a hoping-off point for some massive travels.

And, most importantly, I was not assigned to a ship, but to a Flag Staff on Okinawa while ashore, and when required to go underway, I was assigned to ship’s staff, which is in no way, shape or form to be confused with “ship’s company” (no offense to any SWO-Daddies…and Mommas…out there).  Who the hell joins the Navy to be ship’s company anyhow?!?  I don’t like ships very much.  Except when they are targets.

TACRON enlisted have real duties.  Playing cards is probably not one of them.

TACRON enlisted have real duties. Playing cards is probably not one of them.

But, this is all simply to set a humorous stage for my initial tour on Okinawa as part of Tactical Air Control Squadron 12 (VTC-12, most commonly referred to as “TAC-RON”), or more affectionately known as “THE ISLAND OF MISFIT TOYS.”  You see, no one with any, shall we say “normal” career aspirations asks to go to TACRON.  No, it’s a place reserved for those Commanders who didn’t screen for a real command, and for officers that are, in some way or another, broken.  Now, for the enlisted, it is a real place with real jobs, albeit somewhat off the beaten path.  But for the O’s, if you find yourself down in this particular rabbit hole, you are sure to have that Talking Heads moment where “…you may ask yourself – Well…How did I get here?!”

Japanese Misfit Toys.  I think.

Japanese Misfit Toys. I think.

So, this blog is actually about those fellow misfits.  And God love’em all!  I had some of my BEST times in TACRON, not because of the mission, or duty location, or extra overseas monies we all made.  But because of fellow misfits, who, like in Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, band together to overcome against the Abominable Snow Monster (analogous to most TACRON skippers, white and overly hairy, and have a hard time with the English language), as well as the Winter Warlock.

Could be most any Skipper of TACRON (wink).

Could be most any Skipper of TACRON (wink).

Wait a tic – mixed my Christmas special metaphors.  Strike that last one; it is an impossibility to melt the icy hearts of leadership in the TACRON community.

White Beach back in the day.  Where the misfit toys are often broken down even more.

White Beach back in the day. Where the misfit toys are often broken down even more.

Now, I was permanently forward deployed, but Detachments from the States rotated in and out every six months.  So, there were no less than four complete sets of personnel that I had to welcome, befriend, work with, and farewell during my tenure on Okinawa between the summers of 1999 and 2001.  BUT, the most memorable crew, and really the only Navy-related photos of that entire period hinge around three people, all fellow Navy O-4’s:  Tracy (known better as “TC”), Rick, and Paul.

Paul, extreme foreground on the left.

Paul, extreme foreground on the left. Somewhere in Hong Kong, I believe.  Or Korea.  Someplace where they sell Reeboks apparently….

Yes, that STRANGE.

Yes, that STRANGE.

Paul was permanently forward deployed with me.  He was an S-3 Naval Flight Officer, and this is no joke:  just about the strangest cat I’ve met in uniform, and much like the spotted elephant of the Island of Misfit Toys.  He certainly belonged in TACRON.  He lived out in town, a few minutes walk from our house actually, and his overly violent three little boys and overly flirtatious wife “Kitty” were always the source of gossip and high amusement.  “Strange?” I hear you wondering.  Yes, strange.  Paul once was part of a Captain’s change of command, but just a staff officer standing in ranks.  The uniform for the formal event was Chocker Whites, the epitome of uniforms when one thinks of the Navy (think An Officer and a Gentleman; Paul was neither).  However, when Paul realized he didn’t have the white gloves required as part of the uniform, and not wanting to be a stand-out by not wearing gloves, he instead substituted…wait for it…white athletic socks.  Yeah, he didn’t stand out.  Much.  STRANGE.

Me and TC having a drink...or three.  Definitely in the famous bar in Hong Kong.

Me and TC having a drink…or three. Definitely in the famous bar in Hong Kong.

TC and Rick were perhaps well ahead of the modern man-friendly Navy.

TC and Rick were perhaps well ahead of the modern man-friendly Navy.

TC, a Navy helicopter pilot, was my roommate for a time, and one of the funnier people I’ve met in Navy Aviation.  A wonderful attitude, he brought Jew to the Navy like few others could.  True story:  once I noticed he edited a document I had typed, where I use two spaces between paragraphs.  I noticed he was taking one of each of those groups out, a VERY time-consuming process.  When I asked why, he looked at me and said he was saving memory.  Wow, that was a new slant on tight-wad, and I grew up in a Jewish community!  Sorry TC, no offense intended.  For a guy who used a ruler to sign his checks (so it wouldn’t cross the printed line on the check), you had one of the very best attitudes of anyone in the Navy, before or since.  Oh, and he’s not a very good Jew either; he ate most of the holiday ham, fat and all, we cooked and served at our Det Holiday party (wink)!

Rick, the one with the furry caterpillar on his upper lip.  Manly...for a helo pilot.

Rick, the one with the furry caterpillar on his upper lip. Manly…for a helo pilot.

Rick in a shop-'til-you-drop moment.  He did it justice.

Rick in a shop-’til-you-drop moment. He did it justice.

Rick was also a Navy helicopter pilot, and already knew TC quite well.  I can’t recall if they were ever squadron-mates, but they were close friends, and stuck together while they waded through the cesspools often created within TACRON for no good reason.  Rick was quiet, non-confrontational, and simply didn’t care to rock the boat.  My funniest memory of Rick was a run-in he had with a Commander at the time, and overly gung-ho, juiced-up P-3 jock who had an overly inflated sense of importance to match his ego and steroid-inflated biceps.  When Rick elected to actually stand his watch and do some critical tasks, he was ignorantly overruled and directed to “sit here and watch this brief,” which was being played on ship’s TV.  So, Rick did just that.  As the world came crashing down around him, he sat in the chair, staring at the TV, expressionless and motionless.  When the same Commander came pounding back in to see what the problem was and saw Rick there doing what he thought was nothing, he asked Rick, “WTF?”  Rick simply replied, “I’m sitting here watching TV JUST LIKE YOU TOLD ME TO DO.”  Okay, you had to be there.  And you have to know Rick – a gentle giant, if not a passive-aggressive one.

Rick, TC and me in Hong Kong.  An island not of misfit toys.

Rick, TC and me in Hong Kong. An island not of misfit toys.

TC washing some ham down with Awamori!

TC washing some ham down with Awamori!

But I’m going to leave you with my all-time favorite story involving these three clowns.  Oh, I meant characters.  We’re in the ship’s wardroom one afternoon for lunch, and it’s almost filled to capacity since a full Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) is embarked.  Now, you have to imagine something like, I dunno, twelve or fifteen tables of ten (at least), in a relatively small space with a low overhead, noisy with dishes clanking and filled with a cacophony of mindless chatter and howling laughs here and there.  We are all there, sitting together, enjoying what was surely another wonderful culinary concoction of the finest sea-service, when suddenly, a young office a table or two over starts to choke.  No one really notices at first, but like they teach you in first aid, he stands up, clutching his throat, in the international sign for “I can’t breathe and I’m choking you bastards, so HELP!”  As more and more officers notice this scene, the noise dies down, until it’s almost near silent.  No one has done anything yet.  Finally, a shipmate stands up and performs the Heimlich Maneuver, which worked better than you could ever imagine it could!  Out comes flying a huge chunk of unchewed and charred hamburger, which lands not far from TC.  The place is now so quiet you could hear the meal running through our intestines.  And after just the right amount of pregnant pause, TC states, matter-of-factly while looking at this fellow who just suffered a near-death experience, “Are you gonna eat that???”

176436676_643b3c8f8a_o

The place burst out in tears!

Little-known fact:  Rick is a ROCKSTAR in Korea.

Little-known fact: Rick is a ROCKSTAR in Korea.

And that’s what I love most about being shipwrecked by the Navy…in the Navy…on Okinawa between 1999 and 2001.

The Misfit Toys of Okinawa!

The Misfit Toys of Okinawa. Kanpai!

Typhoons: A Divinely Okinawan Experience


A "Rishi" Calling up a Divine Storm

A “Rishi” Calling up a Divine Storm

Divine Wind destroying the Mongrels in the 13th Century

Divine Wind destroying the Mongols in the 13th Century

Kamikaze (神風):  literally, “God wind,” but more commonly translated as “Divine wind.”  Kami is the Japanese word for “god,” “spirit,” or “divinity,” and kaze translates as “wind.”  The word kamikaze originated as the name of major typhoons in 1274 and 1281 that dispersed and destroyed Mongolian invasion fleets under Kublai Khan which otherwise would have most likely defeated Japan at that time.  However, Kamikaze has been forever negatively morphed in meaning due to the incomprehensibly suicidal Japanese actions against the Allies in World War II, many of which occurred right here in Okinawa.  But this latter context certainly doesn’t apply to our current-day experience with typhoons and their still-divine winds in Okinawa.

Crimson Typhoon - Not a Threat to Okinawa

Crimson Typhoon – Not a Threat to Okinawa, but to Godzilla!

The word typhoon comes from the Cantonese word tai feng, meaning “great wind” and when pronounced sounds very close to “typhoon.”  A typhoon is defined as a tropical cyclone in the western Pacific, where these storms generally track in a westward and northern direction and occur most frequently in the western Pacific region of East Asia that includes the Philippines, Vietnam, Taiwan, southern China, South Korea, southern Japan, Guam, the Marianas Islands and parts of Micronesia.  It is essentially the same thing as a hurricane occurring in the west Atlantic and the eastern Pacific.  Similar storms in the Indian Ocean are called tropical cyclones.  Ones that strike Australia are NOT called willy willies contrary to popular belief (and I hate to burst your and my bubbles), which are nothing more than a small dust devils that often occur in parts down-under.  Cyclone is a catch-all phrase which describes all low-pressure systems over tropical waters and includes typhoons and hurricanes.

Typhoon Alley; hitting Okinawa is considered a Strike for Mother Nature

Typhoon Alley; hitting Okinawa is considered a Strike for Mother Nature. She has come close to rolling a Turkey this year so far….

Massive Storm Earlier this Summer

Massive Storm Earlier this Summer

The typhoon season here is very similar to that back home and lasts from the early summer to early autumn (June to November), often coinciding with the monsoon season in Southeast Asia and the wet season in eastern Japan.  An average of 2.6 typhoons make landfall on the four major islands of Japan annually since record-keeping began in 1951, while on average 10.3 approach within 180 miles of the coast each year.  Twelve named typhoons in this part of the Pacific are considered “many,” while eight or less is considered “few.”  Rarely is there a year without landfall, with a record 10 making landfall in 2004.  Landfall on the relatively tiny island of Okinawa occurs at three times the rate of any other prefecture of Japan!  In fact, Okinawa lies right in the heart of “Typhoon Alley.”  It gets hit by an average of seven typhoons a year.  It is customary that the finances of the families of Okinawan fishermen are in the name of the wife in case the fisherman go out to sea and don’t return, historically a common occurrence, but a seldom modern occurrence due to modern weather-forecasting and storm warning.

The Japanese can find a sexy Manga Character in Anything!

The Japanese can find a sexy Manga Character in Anything!

Japanese Fetish: Umbrella use during Typhoons!

Japanese Fetish: Umbrella use during Typhoons!

Living with typhoons on Okinawa is a completely difference experience than surviving storms back home.  Often there are literally back-to-back storms threatening the coast, and Category 3, 4, and even 5 “super typhoons” are more common and commonly encountered here.  We have lost track of the number of named storms we’ve dealt with in just the eight weeks we’ve been on-island; we are either at seven or eight, with the next due here this week sometime on Wednesday or Thursday.  Oh, and there is another depression out there just waiting to be named….

Wipha 3

Really, what's with the umbrellas and storms??

Really, what’s with the umbrellas and storms??

BUT, given this what Americans would consider a threat, the reaction of the Okinawans is calm and subdued to that of America; even the military here doesn’t “panic” over a strong storm barreling down on their people and bases like they do back home.  Here there simply does not exist the pervasive culture of fear and the media-driven frenzied-panic to which Americans mindlessly prescribe and react without any critical thought.  The Okinawans learned long ago that they must learn to live with the furious side of nature, rather than react to threats and the effects of such storms.

Yikes!  It actually wasn't bad at all....

Yikes! It actually wasn’t bad at all….

 

Pre-Strom American Runs Deplete Shoppette Supplies of Ramen!

Pre-Strom American Runs Deplete Shoppette Supplies of Ramen!

While the Okinawans utilize a wide variety of talisman to help ward off evil and offer protections from damaging typhoons, they also utilize construction techniques that have, for centuries, offered much better shelter than that of many areas of the modern west.  Starting in the mid-19th century, culturally centered construction customs helped to defeat the threat of such storms, and still today include heartily tiled roofs adorned with protective shisa statues (lion-like dog creatures that ward off evil spirits and are omnipresent in Okinawa), and a stone wall and high deeply rooted trees for protection against damaging winds.

Nkamurake Home - Nearly Typhoon-Proof

Nkamurake Home – Nearly Typhoon-Proof

More modern construction codes here are deceiving; while structures look bland and unappealing, it is only because they are designed to withstand both earthquakes and typhoons at the same time.  This means that structures are poured concrete with rebar reinforcement attached to strong, deep foundations.  Modern roofs are flat concrete slabs.  Windows are generally barred, not to defeat crime, but for protection from wind-borne missile hazards.  And, by law, homes are required to have a certain capacity of roof-mounted gravity-fed water storage, which provides for families even when water and power are not available from the authorities.  And due to the harsh climate here and proximity to wind-driven salt-laden air, painting becomes a secondary concern, giving many homes and apartment buildings a rather dingy external appearance.  They are, however, every bit as nice on this inside as we would expect to find anywhere in middleclass American.

Do you sense a recurring theme here??

Do you sense a recurring theme here??

However, unlike back home, in Japan and Okinawa more damage is almost always caused by heavy rains (and resulting floods and landslides) than by the winds or storm surge.  This, in relation to huge swaths of the America eastern seaboard and gulf coast, is opposite in experience and effect. Japanese-centric flood prevention measures, improved planning and construction and storm and flood warning that began in earnest in the 1960s have dramatically reduced the number of people killed in typhoons.  Even the most destructive storms today – including Super-Typhoons (Category 5) – rarely kill more than a dozen people.  By contrast, typhoons even in America still can take hundreds of lives.  There is an obvious and blatant lesson to be learned here….

Two Typhoons and a Tropical Storm.  Can you even image this back home?

Two Typhoons and a Tropical Storm. Can you even image this back home?

The most interesting result of these types of construction practices?  Our sizeable condo building – at 5 floors situated not 20 meters from the East China Sea coastline – actually moves when strong typhoon winds strike just right.  That’s right – glasses rattle, and the floor literally moves.  The building is actually on rollers or tracks to help defeat the transmission of earthquake energy.  It is an eerie feeling indeed to have such a large structure shift beneath your feet!

Strom Survival Kits are the Same World-Round

Strom Survival Kits are the Same World-Round.  But with gas, we can continue to cook gourmet meals!  In other words, the Ramen is wholly optional….

Okay, maybe it's a sport.  He's probably bragging about his attempted umbrella use!

Okay, maybe it’s a sport. He’s probably bragging about his attempted umbrella use!

I wish our friends and family could see the rationale and grounded approach to nature that is part and parcel of the culture in Okinawa.  Acknowledge nature, respect her, and learn to live more in harmony with your surroundings.  But do not FEAR nature.  I’m convinced it’s part of the Okinawan secret to enhanced longevity (and to their less stressful quality of life); not just because they in large part survive storms relatively unscathed, but that they fail to freak like the American populace does at the slightest perceived threat from inclement weather.

The primary drawback of tiny Asian cars!!

The primary drawback of tiny Asian cars!!

Change your longitude next summer, and come visit us in Typhoon Alley.  You’ll go home with a much-improved disposition about life.  And perhaps, just maybe, you’ll see the beauty of the divine wind inherent in such magnificent machinery of nature, especially if Mother Nature decides to bowl a Turkey!